By Ameer Ali –
“The greatest cruelties of our century have been the impersonal cruelties of remote decision, of system and routine, especially when they could be justified as regrettable operational necessity.” (Eric Hobsbawm)
“The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” (Thomas Sowell)
Historians are sometime called prophets in reverse. But Hobsbawm’s statement is prophetic enough to depict the current situation in Sri Lanka where the economy is virtually under IMF’s direction from Washington. It is an economy operated by remote-control. Almost every utterance by the President in praise of the IMF deal, his blind condemnation of the opponents and critics as anarchists and saboteurs, his warning to the nation about the mortal danger of rejecting the deal, and his justification of difficulties caused by the deal, “as regrettable operational necessities,” are typical of a leader in total surrender to “impersonal cruelties of remote decision.” External help should be welcomed but it should not be allowed to “decide what is best.” One wonders whether there was anyone in the Sri Lankan team that went to negotiate with IMF, who had the diplomatic skill and experience to strike a better bargain by driving home the point that Sri Lanka’s support to IMF stakeholders would be crucial in their contest for dominance in the Indian Ocean. In a desperation for immediate funds the team seems to have lost the ability to decide what is best for the country.
A former CBSL Chief, Indrajit Coomaraswamy, is of the view that a second four-year IMF program is on the cards after the current one ends in 2026 so that the reform process could be completed. But, if the expected economic revival fails or slows down to gather momentum by that time, which possibility could not be discounted given the negative impact of non-economic factors, such as the gathering war clouds in Europe and unpredictable natural disasters caused by climate change, the second program may contain even harsher measures to adopt.
Thomas Carlyle described economics a dismal science because, it always raises embarrassing questions to policy makers when they relax with confidence that their neatly structured economic models would ensure growth and prosperity. Even if one were to admit that IMF is the country’s final and best resort to get out of the crisis, the question arises whether the ruling regime, the members of which are the ones who created the crisis in the first place, could be entrusted with another lump of financial resources from IMF and other agencies to implement the model. It was because of the lack of trust on the current powerholders that even before IMF came into the picture aragalaya youth had the perspicacity to pass a vote of no confidence on the entire lot and declared, “NO 225”. How could IMF expect a clowder of cats to guard the milk.
The missing element in RW’s IMF remote control economy is the endorsement by the citizenry. This is not to say that the citizenry is informed enough to understand the finer points of and economic rationale behind the IMF model. But without the citizenry’s cooperation no economic strategy could succeed anywhere. Even now it is the fear of rejection by the people that prevents RW from facing an election. It is doubtful whether he would be prepared to call for one even after the end of his current term if the economy remains stubbornly unresponsive to the remote-control mechanism.
Public distrust on the implementors of IMF model is not going to go away just because RW is working on a legislation to end corruption. That legislation coming at the insistence of IMF would be too little too late. It would be ex post and not ex ante in coverage. With an already corrupt mob entrusted to clean corruption what hopes could people have on the success of this exercise? How can IMF hope to eradicate corruption in a country where the final arbiter, judiciary, is not independent and overtly politicized? RW is appointing a committee to check illicit leakage from IMF and other funds. Even a dozen committees would not be able to stop the leakage so long as fraudsters are able to influence the judiciary. Can IMF prevent that?
The most glaring weakness of IMF’s one size fit all prescription to ailing economies of neoliberal variety is its lack of interest in or inability to deal with problems lying outside the economic and financial arena. This is unfortunately the way specialized institutions are expected to operate. Their power of influence is restricted strictly to functions allocated in their respective constitutions. Even so, one reason for the failure of IMF cure is to hand over its medicine to a team of incompetent and dishonest orderlies. RW’s team has plenty of them. Thus, IMF’s drive to end corruption in Sri Lanka is a latent realization, and RW certainly will not make any attempt to make the corrupt in his team accountable for past maleficence. Such a thorough exercise would implicate him also. Yet, he wants the people to support his remote-control model. Why should they? Corruption is part of the system and unless that system is thrown out there is no redemption.
As part of RW’s sales technique, prices of certain consumer items like milk powder have been arbitrarily reduced. On the one hand, this reduction is made possible by the injection of funds from IMF, but on the other it is necessitated to keep the masses quiet and allow remote control to work. None the less, according to informants from Uva these items are not yet available in retailors’ shelves. Of what use price reduction for goods that are not available? Obviously, it is politics and not economics that is at play here.
In his campaign to sell the IMF package, RW is also reminding the people of the inseparability of economic revival from resolution to the ethnic issue. In this regard, a couple of months ago and following the visit by the Minister of Foreign Relations from Delhi, RW brought up the issue of implementing the controversial 13th Amendment and called for a consensus among parliamentarians to impellent it, which only ended in bringing out the saffron army to the streets. With remote-control economy, once again he is calling for reconciliation of the irreconcilable under the present system. Is he serious or trying to deceive the three disunited minorities, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, and Muslims, and aiming to capture their votes for his re-election when the time arrives? If he is serious, would he publicly denounce the ideological foundation of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, and condemn at the same rime those ultra-nationalist Sinhala Buddhist demagogues who claim that this country belongs only to their community? Would he also canvass support for that cause from the Mahanaykas? The reality is that there is no solution to the ethnic issue without changing the system and without that change even economic revival is not assured. Again, this is another non-economic issue on which IMF is not interested.
In the present political climate, there is no political party or coalition of parties that is openly advocating system change except NPP. Even NPP is yet to publish at least a broad map of its planned trajectory of intended change. Renegotiation with IMF for better terms cannot be ruled out from that trajectory. In the meantime, RW claims that his remote-control economy is the last chance for salvation. History is full of twists and turns, and after seven decades of reign the present system has reached a blind alley. Yet, one should not be overly pessimistic. There is always a silver line at the end. Will NPP be that line of hope?
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia